BOSTON (AP) — A Cambodian refugee who says he was wrongly deported nearly two years ago is reuniting with his family in Massachusetts.
Supporters say 50-year-old Thy Chea, of Lowell, is expected to arrive at Boston’s Logan Airport on Wednesday after getting his green card reinstated last year.
His family, which includes a son born after he was deported, is planning to greet him at the airport, along with other supporters from Lowell, an old mill city near the New Hampshire state line that is the center of the nation’s second-largest Cambodian community.
Chea is the fourth Cambodian refugee to be allowed back into the country after being deported, and just the first on the East Coast, according to Asian American organizations that have been fighting increased deportations of Southeast Asians under President Donald Trump.
Three residents of California, which is home to the largest Cambodian community, have returned since late 2018. The most recent was Sok Loeun, who landed at San Francisco’s airport this month after living in Cambodia for five years.
Refugees from Southeast Asia, a region that includes Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, represent the largest refugee community in U.S. history, according to Asian American groups. Many fled during the years of upheaval, civil war and genocide that followed the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
Deportations of Cambodians have been happening since about 2002, when Cambodia agreed to begin repatriating refugees convicted of felony crimes in the U.S.
But they have risen sharply since Trump imposed visa sanctions on Cambodia and a handful of other nations in order to compel them to speed up the process.
The result was a roughly 280% increase, from 29 removals in the federal fiscal year 2017 to 110 in 2018, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement data.
Asian American groups complain many Cambodians facing deportation served criminal sentences years and sometimes decades ago, when they were troubled young refugees struggling to adjust to a new country.
According to court documents, Chea fled Cambodia’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime with his parents and five siblings when he was 10. The family lived in a refugee camp in Thailand before arriving in the U.S. in 1981.
Chea was ordered to leave the country in 2000 after pleading guilty to assault and battery and "threat to commit a crime.”
But the deportation order was suspended in 2004, and he was allowed to remain in the country as long as he didn’t commit further crimes and checked in regularly with federal immigration officials, according to court documents.
That changed in 2018, when Chea was detained during an immigration check-in and eventually deported.
But Chea's lawyers argue that his criminal charges aren’t deportable offenses and that he should have been allowed to remain in the country, at least until that broader question was resolved.
The Board of Immigration Appeals agreed, reopening his immigration case and restoring his lawful permanent resident status last year.
Greater Boston Legal Services, which is representing Chea, sued the federal government in December, saying immigration officials were still “unlawfully” refusing to facilitate Chea's return.
Lawyers say his family living in the U.S. includes three adult children, two young children and a wife, all of whom are U.S. citizens.
They say Chea was also receiving treatment for mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression from his refugee experience, before he was deported.
A spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is named in the lawsuit, declined to comment.
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